Beyond Thanks

Rachel Malik

Standing outside Downing Street on 27 April, his first day back at work, Boris Johnson characterised Covid-19 as ‘an unexpected and invisible mugger’. This is ‘the moment’, he said, ‘when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor’. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the perils of political discourse – ambiguous, obscure, confounding, deceptive. Even such ‘master communicators’ as Johnson and Dominic Cummings have not been able to keep control of their messages.

The pandemic presents a genuine communicative challenge. The government has to tell people what to do, in unprecedented ways; represent multiple uncertainties; and explain the dynamics between the disease and treatment, public health, the economy and society. Figurative language has proliferated. The economy is in the deep freeze, or on life support. The virus is ‘weird as hell’, it plays with your mind.

The government uses numbers metaphorically, hoping to create a kind of numerical sublime that will overcome doubts about supply and the rising number of deaths. A lot was made of the ‘fifty’ pages of last week’s ‘roadmap’ to recovery, to signal the document’s weight and detail, trying to make up for the vagueness of what had gone before.

At the end of April, Johnson exploited the metaphorical possibilities of the ‘peak’. ‘We’ve come under what could have a been a vast peak,’ he said, ‘as though we’ve been going through some huge alpine tunnel. And we can now see the sunlight and pasture ahead of us. And so it is vital that we do not now lose control and run slap into a second and even bigger mountain.’ We are said to be all in this together, but the prime minister’s imagery seemed aimed at the few of us lucky enough to have been on a long drive through the Alps to a ski resort or Mediterranean villa. (‘It’s unlikely big lavish international holidays are going to be possible for this summer,’ Matt Hancock said on 12 May. ‘I just think that’s a reality of life’ – as if it weren’t already a reality of life for many people before the pandemic.)

One of the biggest ongoing linguistic challenges is finding ways of speaking to and about the people. Johnson has been profuse in his thanks, to colleagues but above all to ‘you the people’. Any ministerial appearance comes with thanks to the people, quite often ‘the British people’. I’ve never been thanked so much, so often, so effusively. And, for the most part, all I’ve done is stay at home. (Just so long as we don’t get ‘addicted’ to not working.) It is in some of the blandest formulations that the most political work is being done.

Writing in last weekend’s Mail on Sunday, Johnson commends ‘the phenomenal bravery, compassion and selflessness’ of various groups of workers:

The staff in our care homes and NHS doing all they can to bring the sick back to health. Teachers helping critical workers go to work by looking after their children, while still teaching those at home. Police and prison officers keeping order on our streets and in our prisons. Those producing, processing, distributing and selling food. Engineers keeping the lights on and our broadband connected.

‘Our armed forces’ and civil servants are also mentioned. The previous Sunday’s TV broadcast had listed others: ‘bus drivers, train drivers, pharmacists, postal workers’. No one must be forgotten, everyone in the ‘war effort’ must be acknowledged, whether they’re on the ‘front line’ or the (literal) ‘home front’. As in a war, the Covid-19 epidemic has led to calls for and expressions of national unity. ‘The health of Boris Johnson,’ Allison Pearson went so far as to write in the Telegraph on 7 April, ‘is the health of the body politic and, by extension, the health of the nation itself.’ But the virus does not kill indiscriminately: deaths are significantly higher among ethnic minorities and ‘low skilled’ workers.

The lists of people to be thanked are popular at the daily ministerial briefings, which have given up on their earlier lists of private companies, a kind of ‘thank you to our sponsors’. When the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, led the briefing on 6 May, he sounded like a headmaster on prize day as he offered up praise for the swift processing of business grants: ‘I’d like to congratulate Chichester, Ealing and Hyndburn councils who are the three highest-performing councils so far in England.’ Hancock, meanwhile, at the beginning of April had pledged to ‘fight the virus with everything I’ve got. And we will strain every sinew to defeat it’ – as if his efforts were on a par with those of the people actually risking their lives.

The lists serve another political function. In the Mail on Sunday, Johnson named care home workers ahead of those in the NHS, and teachers straight after health workers. On a weekend when the opening or not of schools was all over the media, Johnson reminded readers and teachers that he knows how hard they’re already working. On the same day, Michael Gove used the Andrew Marr Show to attack teaching unions: ‘If you really care about children, you’ll want them to be in school.’ Johnson, too, emphasised the emotional qualities of the workers rather than their skills and knowledge, their ‘love and kindness’, their ‘putting others first’.

It would be nice to think that such statements, like the weekly ‘clap for our carers’, acknowledged the value of affective labour. But when work is characterised as a set of exceptional actions or feelings – sacrifice, heroism, selflessness, going ‘above and beyond’ – the question of pay, or economic and social security, can be avoided. On Radio 4’s Westminster Hour on Sunday, Kit Malthouse, the justice minister, said that he hoped the crisis would foster the development of care work as a credentialised, ‘desirable, professional career’. Would there be more pay, he was asked. ‘Possibly,’ he replied. Like the ‘care badge’ proposed by Hancock (one of the most toe-curling government micro-responses to the pandemic), the great thing about praise and thanks is that they don’t need to come with guarantees of anything else, not even that an overseas care worker’s annual bill of £625 to access the NHS will be waived.

On Channel 4 News on 18 May, in a discussion of the upcoming Immigration Bill, the Conservative MP Caroline Nokes laid out the logic of the points-based system: entry will be granted, withheld or suspended on the grounds of Britain’s economic need. The labour tap of poorly paid sacrifice and generosity can be turned on and off as the economy requires. Gratitude and thanks cost nothing and promise less.


  • 21 May 2020 at 1:31am
    neddy says:
    Good post and good reading. We have the same grating "gee thanks, you're so wonderful" carry-on from our politicians here in Australia, together with daily droning lectures from those same politicians, from bureaucrats, health "experts", academics, and assorted other flapping mouths on social distancing, staying at home, how they all care about us, and how "we are all in this together". One for all and all for one. Where's my flag; which of my kids hid it. GRRR. At the same time most of Australia's States have closed their borders, with State Premiers telling outsiders they are loved but, at this time, not wanted, and sneering at each others efforts to mitigate the spread of covid 19. Fines for breaking social distancing rules - even for sunbathing on a beach far away from the masses - are extreme and substantially in excess of those for drunken driving, for example. Neighbors are tattling on neighbors and the police are responding with an alacrity they never display when a citizen begs their assistance for an on-going home invasion. It's a nasty business over and above the very serious health and economic effects of covid 19. At one stage the Australian Federal Government had the military out (although they backed off quickly, and quietly, on that one) "assisting" police. Covid 19, hypocrisy 2020.

    • 24 May 2020 at 11:41am
      Murray Barnard says: @ neddy
      where would you rather be Ned? 541 per million in UK or 4 per million in Australia? Restrictions being loosened in Australia while UK arefinally realising they meed to tighten. Hypocrisy you say or effective Public Health I say. Thank goodness for our practical and effective State based system, if we had relird on the Federal Government we would be like the UK or perhaps as bad as the USA. Australia and NZ are almost unique in Western Governments in dealing effectively with this awful virus so far.

    • 26 May 2020 at 9:32am
      neddy says: @ Murray Barnard
      I'm willing to pay my money and take my chances (I'm well into my seventies). All of the persons dying from covid19 in Australia have been oldies - seriously old oldies -with co-morbidities and living in nursing homes. Many of those co-morbidities would have been self inflicted courtesy of the oldies' chosen life styles. It's not covid19 that's killing them; it's old age and all their pre-existing conditions, with the virus being the straw that broke the back of their resilience and immune systems. Effective public health would require a much more equal income distribution system, and an emphasis on preventing the co-morbidities that are the real cause of the excess deaths.

    • 27 May 2020 at 2:31am
      neddy says: @ Murray Barnard
      In anticipation of a post relating to the 30 year old who died last night in central Queensland, with covid19 in his system, I point out that he had a "complicated medical history", according to the Queensland Government. In other words (as the Government also stated), he had co-morbidities. I re-iterate: an effective public health system would target the co-morbidities that afflict a significant proportion of the Australian population, especially in rural areas. And an effective public health system would target and bring about a significant re-distribution of national income, as income is a known indicator of personal health and well being. My condolences to the family of the man who died last night in Queensland, Australia.

    • 2 June 2020 at 12:33am
      neddy says: @ Murray Barnard
      The 30 year old Queensland man who supposedly died of covis19 in fact did not have the virus in his system at the time of his death, according to the Queensland coroner. This information is courtesy of the Australian version of The Guardian, a left wing and very interventionist paper if ever there was one. At least The Guardian is not as dishonest as Australia's ABC, or some of our Chief Health Officers, who are using the virus to exercise power they were not elected to wield, and to get into the spotlight. What else is new.

  • 21 May 2020 at 4:29pm
    Riley Feldmann says:
    In light of the virus, visualizing the "in this together" response seems best done with the image of the politic as a body. The powers that be have long flexed this together muscle and, when that muscle was young and robust (made so by emergent nationalisms pitting themselves against one another and other challenges) its flexing worked quite well in shielding the flexing party from blowback. When it was used, the body responded.

    Yet now that muscle, though functional, has weakened - thanks to a list of issues too long to round up here. The sinews that connect it to the body fail to stand up to the strain of a full flex for long in the face of inaction to help reinforce them. The body responds, but for a limited time if there appears to be no action on the part of the governing function to address the reasons for flexing's weakness.

    And so eventually that "together" muscle gives out. Now torn, the question is how the various parts of the body respond to its loss. Is it stitched together through consequential changes, compensated for by finding a duller muscle, or ignored and risked as unessential?

    And here I am following-on a critique of figurative language through the use of long-winded figurative language. I'm ready for the big leagues.

  • 21 May 2020 at 5:52pm
    Graucho says:
    Wasn't "We are all in this together" the line used by Cameron when implementing austerity ? In true Orwellian style, some were more in it than others. All this high flown hyperbolic rhetoric reminds me of the saying "When all is said and done, a lot more has been said than done".

  • 23 May 2020 at 2:04pm
    Juliet Gardiner says:
    I completely agree with Rachel Malik's despair. Kind words don't butter any parsnips as my grandmother used to say
    . i still have a Blue Peter badge awarded to me for my ability to make something clever out of a cereal box and a couple of yogurt pots, and i am much prouder of that than any I am much prouder of that than I would be of any patronising badge Matt Hancock,. distributes

    i think we need to be wary every time a politician talks about 'the peopl,elesince it generally means that the public' are being told to shoulder responsibility for the the government'sineptitude and boris Johnson's recent 'state of the union broadcast
    i suspect the words 'the people' every time a politician uses it since it usually means

  • 23 May 2020 at 2:26pm
    Bob Brecher says:
    A very perceptive analysis of the importance of language in helping forge political realities. But the question remains, as ever, what is to be done? How can those not in power challenge and overturn the language of Cummings, Patel, Johnson and co? Perhaps a start -- but no more than a start -- might be to disrupt the "gentlemen's" agreement whereby English politeness is the golden rule (leaving those in charge to decide what counts as 'politeness', of course). Maybe those of us repelled by the bunch of tawdry chancers masquerading as a government should start being rude; very rude. That conversation demands we not be rude doesn't matter, since there is no conversation going on at all: the government is using speech and writing as an unashamedly ideological weapon, as a means merely of expression, not of communication. As John Cooper Clarke once told a heckler, 'I can't hear ya, mate, your mouth's full of shit.'

    • 23 May 2020 at 11:08pm
      Graucho says: @ Bob Brecher
      I so agree. The left has really lost its instinct for the jugular. Aneurin Bevan once caused a stir when he desribed the Tories as "lower than vermin". What a master of understatement that man was.

  • 23 May 2020 at 2:34pm
    A Dodsworth says:

  • 23 May 2020 at 2:53pm
    Juliet Gardiner says:
    I completely agree with Rachel Malik's despair.'Words don't butter any parsnips' as my Grand mother used to say'
    ''Fine words don't butter any parsnips,' as my grandmother used to say.

    . i still have a Blue Peter badge awarded to me for my ability to make something clever out of a cereal box and a couple of yogurt pots, and i am much prouder of that than any I am much prouder of that than I would be of any patronising badge Matt Hancock might care to hand out

    I am wary of any politician who talks about 'the people,'since it invariably means, as Boris Johnson seemed to imply in his recent state of the nation 'broadcast, that the public are being made responsible with clearing up the mess the government has made ofthe CV-19 epidemic

  • 23 May 2020 at 2:59pm
    OldScrounger says:
    One over-used word missing from the above comments is "unprecedented". Much about the current epidemic is unique, but there are parallels, notably the handling of the Aberdeen typhoid outbreak in 1964 by the city's medical officer of health Dr. Ian Macqueen.

  • 23 May 2020 at 3:31pm
    Juliet Gardiner says:
    I completely agree with Rachel Malik's despair. 'Fine.'words won't butter any parsnips', as my Grand mother used to say'
    . i still have a Blue Peter badge awarded to me for my ability to make something clever out of a cereal box and a couple of yogurt pots, and I am much prouder of that than any that Matt Hancock might chose to hand out.
    we should bewary of any politician who evokes 'the people' , since that invariably seems to mean that responsibility for any crisis, at the moment Covid -19, will be handed to the public to clear up the mess this government has made of it juliet Gardiner

  • 23 May 2020 at 3:46pm
    Juliet Gardiner says:
    I completely share Rachel Malik's despair. 'Fine.'words won't butter any parsnips', as my Grandmother used to say'
    . i still have a Blue Peter badge awarded to me for my ability to make something clever out of a cereal box and a couple of yogurt pots, and I

  • 24 May 2020 at 5:05am
    OldScrounger says:
    Regarding the NHS "surcharge" (which it isn't ; it's a tax), the waiving of it is merely the righting of an outrageous wrong. A positive and commensurate reward to non-citizen NHS and care workers who risk their lives for the minimum wage would be to grant them and their spouses and offspring full citizenship, unconditionally and immediately. This could be applied posthumously to those who did more than risk their lives, so that their bereaved families may enjoy the consequential benefits.

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